(spoilers for episode eight)
One of the criticisms directed at House of the Dragon, though it’s less a critique than a matter of taste, is its relative smallness when compared to its much larger-in-scope predecessor. But much like how limitations have been used to create great art, so too can a series that occupies itself with the conflict of one family yield insight into themes much larger than the plight of a small group of people. It proposes questions on the value of blood lineage and the power of last names alongside titles and how these things may be sacrificed for another. It’s an antiquated system that is deemed worthy enough to kill for, and even to die for, but this week’s most inspiring moment comes from a family patriarch deciding it’s worthy to live for. Neither the system nor that struggle should be undertaken in real life, but in the realm of fiction it makes for some riveting television.
Over the past six years, the fighting in the Stepstones has only gotten worse. Corlys, who’s been stationed there over the length of that time, has been gravely injured. Vaemond is raising the question of who should sit on the Driftwood throne, eyeing himself for the position despite the fact that Corlys is still alive. For the second time in her life, Rhaenys is being denied a seat on a throne due to her gender, despite her immense competence. Vaemond’s presumptuous offense is enough to make her back Corlys’ wish to have Luke as his successor despite her previous disagreement, especially when Vaemond states in no uncertain terms that he has no problem circumventing her by petitioning directly to the queen. It’s a dream scenario for the Greens, since having the Lord of Driftmark in their back pocket would vastly increase their power base.
By now, Viserys’ condition has deteriorated greatly, his final days passing in little more than a haze induced by milk of the poppy. His family is in shambles. Alicent now sits at the head of the Small Council with her father by her side, the two of them ever closer to fulfilling their goal of ruling Westeros until they can supplant Rhaenyra with Aegon. Their underhanded goal is made worse by the fact that Aegon has grown up to be quite the monster. The report of the rape committed by him is only made worse by Alicent’s willingness to cover up his crime. Her ability to instill fear and shame into that poor serving girl under the guise of maternal concern is heinous. She is truly her father’s daughter. Too bad her awful children (save poor Helaena) are immune to her way with words, which probably has to do with her silent complicity. Because no matter how angry she may appear—a slap and a few harsh words is no sort of punishment at all, especially when this is clearly not the first offense—it seems her willingness to continue bolstering her atrocious oldest son at the expense of everyone has not wavered.
Meanwhile, Rhaenyra has led a relatively peaceful life at Dragonstone with her ever-growing family. But with the news that Vaemond is going to petition the court, Rhaenyra knows his argument will hinge on making Luke’s obvious lack of Velaryon blood a public matter, endangering Jace and Rhaenyra’s claim to the throne. Upon her return to King’s Landing, she finds the Red Keep greatly changed, the art and decor favored by the Targaryens replaced by the religious iconography of The Seven. Unsurprisingly, Alicent has developed a religious fervor in her progressively awful moral standing, though a more charitable reading would point out that her religious observance is also a means of coping with taking care of a chronically ill husband. Years’ worth of pursuing cures and treatment to still watch death take the cruelest toll possible would be enough to inspire most to seek guidance from a higher power.
Unlike Alicent, Rhaenyra has not had to witness the progression of her father’s disease, so seeing Viserys after all this time is a sight much more shocking than the installation of new stonework. A “shell of himself” doesn’t begin to cover the wisp of decaying man lying in bed. Naturally, Rhaenyra is sorrowful over seeing her beloved father in this condition, but seeing the effect it has on Daemon is just as moving. He may have rebuffed Viserys’ efforts towards reconciliation at the funeral, but it brings Daemon no pleasure seeing his brother in this state. He appears rueful, quietly launching into the reasoning behind his and Rhaenyra’s sudden arrival out of haste and the inability to say anything else in the moment. There’s no words for that sort of prolonged suffering and there’s too many years of acrimony to try to devise comforting words that would still likely fall flat. Besides, Daemon speaks primarily out of necessity, choosing to let his actions speak for him (as demonstrated later).
When it comes time for the petition, things aren’t looking well for Rhaenyra. The actual court is very much stacked against her with Alicent and Otto poised to make the final decision. Rhaenys, understandably bitter over Laenor’s “murder,” is prepared to look out only for herself, while Vaemond awaits the chance to pull the pin on the paternal grenade. All Rhaenyra can do is state her and Luke’s case and pray for a miracle.
Miracles are usually in short supply in this world, but this is Rhaenyra’s lucky day. In what is arguably the most dramatic moment in the series thus far, the doors are thrown open and in walks King Viserys, crown (and golden mask) on, ready to oversee court. No dragon or battle has been as awe-inspiring as watching Viserys limp through that long length of hall, pushing forward only out of the immense love he has for his daughter, while Otto rises from the Iron Throne like the pretender he is. “I will sit the throne today,” he tells his Hand. As he makes his way up the stairs (that Ramin Djawadi score playing hell on my emotions the whole while), his crown falls off, and in a poetic moment, it is Daemon who places it back upon his head (note: that moment was born out of an improvisation during rehearsal, but everyone liked it so much they opted to do it again and use it for the final cut; courtesy of EW).
Victory is snatched out of the Greens’ hands. Rhaenys, seeing the writing on the wall, throws her lot in with Rhaenyra. Vaemond is far too prideful for all of that. With nothing left to lose, Vaemond begins saying what no one has dared state publicly before now (Daemon’s quiet, “Say it,” had me on my feet). Mere seconds after Vaemond utters his parting insult towards Rhaenyra, Daemon’s sword slices through his head, leaving nothing but his insolent tongue wagging out of the half still attached to his neck.
Quite the melodramatic last day on the job for Viserys. I’ve sympathized with him throughout the series but that sadness feels especially keen as he turns down the milk of the poppy, insisting to Alicent, “I must put things right.” Despite knowing the plot is inevitably headed towards civil war, Viserys, with his many hopes and subsequent failures, is the great tragedy of season one. Yes, he’s a cautionary tale about the precariousness of good intentions and how they matter little in a political game composed primarily of other people’s ambitions, but his desire for family unity is undeniably touching despite his lack of perceptiveness. In short, he’s a good man in a bad world, and in another time and place, he could have gone on to have a long and mostly happy life. But duty called, and the Iron Throne ultimately destroyed him from the inside out (literally), much as it’s destined to do with his family.
His desire for peace is almost enough to turn the tide. Over dinner, it seems possible that the old resentments could be set aside, as Rheanyra takes a moment to recognize Alicent’s sacrifices while Alicent gives a nod to her capability as ruler. The kids are another story—Aegon insists on being foul and later, Aemond, for all the skill and strength he’s worked tirelessly to hone over these years, is petty enough to pick a fight with a pair of young teens half his size—but Viserys is able to look on all of them with the rose-colored glasses of someone who’s reached the end of their life. It’s a poignancy so sharp that it aches. Despite the fact that each family member will eventually play a part in a struggle that winds up changing the course of history, when he passes away mere hours later, that dinner feels like one small blessing granted to a dying man who didn’t do enough, but did his best.
Kaleena Rivera is the TV Editor for Pajiba. When she isn’t already regretting the loss of the great Paddy Considine’s wonderful presence (if you want some fun insight into his time “serving Targaryen realness,” I highly recommend his Instagram), she can be found on Twitter here.